SLEEP was drifting in when the mobile phone hauled all senses back to life. It was 11.38pm on Friday 28 May last. The text received was intriguing. "Call me tomorrow for a big story on the clear understanding that u will protect my identity. If u cannot protect my identity please ignore this message."
The following day, after a number of efforts, I made contact with the mystery caller.
He said the Mansfield Group, owned by millionaire Jim Mansfield, had been sold the previous day to an American pension fund for €1.6bn. One of the reasons for the sale was the state of Mansfield's health. He said it would make a dynamite story, but I had to protect his identify. After further conversation, it became obvious that he worked for the group.
A phonecall to the group's PR person resulted in a denial, saying the story was laughable. Later, through his prompting and a little research, it turned out the man with the story was Seán Whelan, the chief executive officer of the Mansfield Group. The previous week, I had made initial inquiries about a Seán Whelan whom I had been informed had worked in Quinn Insurance, despite having been fingered in a high-profile case of misselling policies to isolated farmers some years before ( although there is no suggestion that Quinn Insurance knew this).
Now a Seán Whelan I didn't know was my best friend, texting out of the blue with mouth-watering stories. As it was to turn out, the two incarnations were the same person. Coincidence? Or had somebody tipped him off about inquiries being made into his past and he moved to deflect the inquirer onto a fool's errand?
Whelan came to prominence in 1995, when it was revealed that he was the subject of an investigation in Canada Life. A ruse in which he had been involved had been uncovered.
Acting as a tied agent to Canada Life, he was selling what he purported to be mortgage/pension policies, which, he told the clients, would allow them to receive loans of between £30,000 and £500,000. Most of the policies were offered to farmers living on both sides of the border. Canada Life didn't deal in mortgages. The products he was selling didn't exist. At least 30 clients were thus duped and Canada Life knew nothing of his activities.
At the time, Whelan was highly regarded by Canada Life, although he wasn't an employee. In 1994, its in-house magazine had praised Whelan as an example of a top salesman, who was "incredibly energetic".
Once the ruse was discovered by the company, Canada Life cut ties with Whelan.
However, the company was the subject of legal action by around 20 of the clients, and High Court proceedings were issued. All of the cases were settled in actions that, according to legal sources, ultimately cost Canada Life close to €500,000. Whelan was never prosecuted.
Two of the clients who took legal actions told the Sunday Tribune they would love to talk about their experiences but felt bound by a confidentiality clause signed on settlement of their respective cases.
By the time the story broke in March 1995, Whelan was already in big trouble on other fronts.
His company TA Electronics had got into serious difficulties, and some people were determined that he would not emerge lightly. TA Electronics was involved in the marketing and sale of mobile phones, which were still relatively rare in the early 1990s.
Initially, Whelan had some success, exploiting contacts in both the GAA and the church. Among his clients was the then Archbishop of Armagh, Cahal Daly, who wrote a letter of gratitude to the high-flying salesman.
"I cannot thank you enough for your great kindness in coming personally to deliver the new car phone last week," the archbishop wrote in a letter dated 21 February 1991.
"It is a marvellous piece of equipment and will be an invaluable tool in my work. I shall be ever grateful to you. All I can do in return is to offer a prayer for God's blessing upon yourself and your whole enterprise."
Within a few years, TA Electronics was creaking under huge debts, despite the health of the economy and the expanding market for mobile phones.
By February 1995, Whelan was personally in debt to over £300,000. The main creditor was a company called Dieder, an investment vehicle for Dermot Desmond, which was owed £146,000. In September 1994, Dieder obtained a High Court judgement against Whelan and TA Electronics for the same amount.
Whelan sought to have his debts consolidated. He retained insolvency agent Billy Flynn, who also operates as a private detective. Most creditors were willing to settle for around 10% of what they were owed.
For instance, AIB agreed to settle its debt of £52,000 for £5,200. Woodchester Finance was willing to accept £7,586 for a debt of £75,000. Ulster Bank was owed £6,440, but settled for £644. There was, however, one creditor who was not for compromising.
Flynn made contact with Desmond through the latter's solicitor, Ivor FitzPatrick. He was told that the solicitor would recommend to Desmond that he settle for £20,000.
In an affidavit subsequently filed for a High Court action, Flynn stated that he was instructed by Whelan to attend "at Canada Life offices at Lower Mount Street at 2pm on the afternoon of Friday 17th February (1995), where he (a named Canada Life executive) would refer me £20,000 to attempt to settle the Deider Limited debt".
At that stage, the question of Whelan's misselling of policies had not come to light. A bank draft for £20,000 was dispatched in order to meet the debts of the high flying salesman. By 20 March, five weeks later, the company had issued a statement saying Whelan was no longer with them and an investigation was underway.
In any event, the £20,000 cheque was not going to do the business. A letter of reply from Desmond's solicitor set out his position.
"Further to your letter to this office enclosing a bank draft in an amount of £20,000, we wish to advise that we have taken our client's instructions in this matter and confirm that he is not prepared to accept this amount in satisfaction of the above proceedings.
"Our client requires full payment of the monies due and owing to him and will not consider any proposals to settle for less."
Desmond was embarking down the road of bankrupting Whelan. The billionaire financier has a reputation for generosity, particularly towards those who have failed in business. According to sources close to the case, Desmond had determined in this instance to act on a matter of principle as he was extremely dissatisfied with how Whelan had conducted himself, both in relation to Didier and with others.
Following a petition from Didier, Whelan was adjudicated by the High Court to be declared bankrupt on 3 April 1995. In November of that year he applied to be allowed to leave the jurisdiction as he was unemployed and had been offered a job by a communications company in Stoke-on-Trent. He was granted permission, according to his bankruptcy file.
It is unclear what Whelan worked at thereafter before he returned to Ireland. In an online business profile, he lists himself as having been the chief operating officer of a company based in the Caribbean island of Mauritius.
Whelan is also listed as having served as a managing director of a German based company, and a stint as vice president of Avocent International, based in Shannon.
In any event, he landed a job with Quinn Insurance in 2008. Despite his previous contribution to the insurance industry at Canada Life, he was appointed a senior commercial claims manager, reporting to Seán Quinn Jnr. Whelan confirmed to the Sunday Tribune that he worked for Quinn for 12 months at this time. In March 2009, he took up a position in the Mansfield Group and within two months was describing himself as chief operating officer of the group.
Whelan's bankruptcy was never discharged. Under bankruptcy law, it can be an offence for the bankrupt to act as a company director. His current position is described as CEO of the Mansfield Group, but he is not a member of the board. His bankruptcy file has no entries after 2001, and appears to have drifted into disrepair.
A number of people who have come into contact with him describe Whelan as having exemplary interpersonal skills. Words like "smooth", "plausible", and "likeable" are used.
"He's somebody whom the staff at CityWest would react well to." Another source says, "When he's talking to you, it's like you're the only person in the room."
One person unlikely to have encountered the smooth side of Whelan is former CityWest manager John Glynn.
In an affidavit filed in the High Court last January to prevent his dismissal from the group, Glynn alleged that Whelan had been constantly trying to undermine him.
Glynn alleged that Whelan had joined the group in what appeared to be a consultancy role, as a result of being a social acquaintance of Jim Mansfield Jnr.
Within two months of joining, Whelan was describing himself as the CEO. Glynn had been on a salary of €250,000, which Whelan had arbitrarily cut by €100,000 in July 2009, only reinstating it following the intervention of Jim Mansfield. In October, the salary was cut again, when Mansfield was in hospital for a serious health complaint.
Glynn says that in December, Whelan wrote him a letter complaining about a traffic management issue at CityWest. Glynn tore up the letter and walked into Whelan "in a moment of weakness" and handed him the remains. Whelan then dismissed him.
Mansfield Snr and Whelan both disputed Glynn's contentions.
In February, the High Court granted Glynn the temporary injunction against his dismissal, which, the judge said, appeared to have been "brutally and unlawfully" effected last Christmas Eve.
Meanwhile, the Saudis are coming. Whelan is currently the driving force behind the Mansfield Group's planned CityWest Institute of Further Education. This is, in effect, a language school which will cater for 750 Saudi Arabian students. The students will be housed in apartments in CityWest, which heretofore had been casualties of the property downturn.
Concerns have been expressed in education circles about the proposal, but the South Dublin VEC is backing it. Concerns have also been voiced about the ghettoisation of a large number of Saudis in an education course that is supposed to encompass integration in the host country.
The Saudi Ministry of Education is supporting the venture, and it is understood that at least €10m has already been invested by the Saudis. If the venture is a success, it can only strengthen trade links. If it runs into problems, there will undoubtedly be repercussions for those links.
When Whelan was contacted last week, he was in Saudi Arabia. Asked about his position in the Mansfield Group, he said there was no legal problem, despite his status as a bankrupt.
"Once you don't hold an official position on a company board, you're okay," he said. He was "98% sure" of his legal position. He said he didn't misssell policies when he was an agent for Canada Life.
"No, I didn't. I was there for a short time, I don't remember the time." In reference to the actions taken against Canada Life he said: "I have no knowledge of what happened after I left."